MINNEAPOLIS – The King’s left eye was twitching in the most unbecoming way.
“Me, I had seven turnovers.”
“Which I can’t stand.”
“I hate when I turn the ball over.”
It was maybe a wince, what LeBron James’ face was contorting into, perhaps purposeful, but just as easily a visceral reaction to a 97-81 win that was so much closer than it should have been.
LeBron was not pleased, not with just 20 points, not when he’d been more careless with the ball than he had all season. Not when there were moments in which it looked like Ricky Rubio was going to put the Timberwolves on his 21-year-old back and singlehandedly will them to a win. Not when it took a near-fight between Ray Allen and J.J. Barea, an unjust ejection (Barea), and a technical foul on Rick Adelman with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game within six to tip the scales.
No, none of that pleases King James, not even when you remind him that his Heat have now won 15 straight, a franchise record, after their latest victory. This is a man whose team is so electrifying that its bandwagon is magnetic; one championship, three stars, and the stands in Minnesota are dotted with red. This is a man who just a day before looked to have suffered a knee injury in New York, who pushed his team back from a double-digit halftime deficit to beat the Knicks in the aftermath, whose status was questionable until moments before Monday’s game.
But this is LeBron’s world. There are no off nights, not even if he’s the best player in basketball on the league’s best team. As silly as that sounds, it may just be necessary.
Before Monday, I had yet to see LeBron James play in person, through some trick of scheduling and the fact that I grew up in a city devoid of any NBA presence. I knew of him, of course, knew he was great. Any teenager in the early 2000s with ears, eyes and a television knew as much. My first real memory of LeBron took place in a basement restaurant at Georgetown University, The Tombs, in 2006, after he’d scored 38 points against Boston. The TVs were showing highlights, and I remember thinking, wow, this guy is a lot better than Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who at that point were the best metrics of basketball greatness in my 18-year-old mind.
He was indeed.
Needless to say, my grasp on King James has evolved since then. And so on Sunday, when I saw him fall on national TV, my first thought was that I wouldn’t get to see him, that my LeBron-less streak would endure. It made sense, of course: the knee might not have been badly hurt, but it was likely not 100 percent, and the Heat were playing the Timberwolves the next night, a team they could likely beat with Bosh and Wade tied together in a three-legged race. So why would James play if there was even a question? Why would he put on his now-customary pre-game dunk show? Why would he do anything other than dash my hope of finally seeing him play?
This is a man who’s accustomed to coasting into Minnesota and beating the Timberwolves without a thought. (He hasn’t lost there since 2005.) Those are perhaps the most precious knees in the NBA, allowing the most precious legs to jump and dunk and race down the court. All that, though, and there’s still a catch. Why would he play – well, it’s simple. He would play because he had to, because the Heat still have something to prove, and because to win like they want to win does not involve nights off.
And so there was LeBron, pinging a windmill dunk off the rim during warmups and listening as the whole of the crowd sighed in unison. There he was, throwing perhaps the most anticlimactic alley-oop pass in the history of the NBA to Dwyane Wade in the first quarter, because there was no contesting it, no doubt where it was going, no flickering indecision as to what Wade would do. There he was, dunking and dishing and shooting 56.3 percent, the Target Center PA announcer positively spitting his name through the arena with every score. James – with its single, hissing syllable, it’s perfect for that particular brand of dejected, speaker-borne bitterness.
So there he was, being LeBron, and there the Heat were, eventually snapping into form for the double-digit win, and by the end, I understood what Chris Bosh meant when he said pregame that it would take James’ legs falling off to keep him on the bench.
Looking at the Heat’s record, their point totals, their accuracy – looking at anything on a box score can be so deceptive. The numbers are impressive. Almost too impressive. They’re so good that you almost expect this team to have a 20-point lead at halftime, for Wade to immediately have 20 points, James instantly 30. They are elite, and so we demand results in a split second, instantaneous proof that they’re a notch above the rest. Most of the time, though, that does not happen. Even this brand of greatness takes time, a part of a season, a chunk of a game.
“You have to suffer,” Bosh said. “You have to go through what you go through and learn lessons. It’s not an easy road. That’s . . . a huge misconception that’s probably out there. It takes a lot of sacrificing from players one through 15 and the coaching staff as well.”
The Heat know that every team in the league is out to get them, that there’s a target on their backs. They knew on Monday that the Timberwolves were playing with nine men — eventually eight, after that torrent of sailor swearing erupted from Barea — and with almost no pressure. Adelman admitted as much pregame. “When you’re winning, you’re looking at the larger goal,” he said. “Right now, we’re just looking for a win. That may seem real trivial, but that’s reality.”
The Heat know reality. They know, as Eric Spoelstra said, that every team that laces up its shoes is gunning for them. That, as Wade pointed out, teams can play over their heads with the goal of beating them. They’ve done this before, for 44 wins and 14 losses. They’ve messed up, choked, gotten overconfident. They’ve been flat, like they were for stretches on Monday, and they’ve muddled through the post-championship hangover. Now they’re at 15 straight wins, and they didn’t get there by accident. They didn’t get there by James taking a night off against a bad team when his knee might be a little sore.
Recognizing that, as Miami seems to have, might be its biggest asset. So let LeBron’s eye twitch. Let him come down from on high and be dismally human from time to time. It’ll only fuel him, and the Heat aren’t winning anything by coasting, not even against the lowly Timberwolves.